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Do-nothing Congress II: It's not a compliment

Published: Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

It’s official: The Republican-controlled House and the Democrat-controlled Senate agreed on so few issues this year, Congress is on pace to pass the fewest bills in a two-year term since World War II.

Pundits have compared the current occupants of Capitol Hill unfavorably to the infamous “Do-Nothing Congress” of 1947-48, which was a dynamo in comparison. Lawmakers passed 1,729 bills in that two-year term, compared to 58 in the first year of this one. Unless something changes dramatically in the second half of the 113th Congress, it will be the least productive in modern memory.

Counting the number of bills that make it into law, however, is only one way to judge lawmakers, and not always the most meaningful. Adding 50 new wrinkles to the tax code, for instance, would be far less valuable than enacting a single comprehensive overhaul. And as important as it may be to keep federal law up to date, so too is the work congressional committees do to oversee the executive branch and draw attention to emerging national issues.

Yet the paltry number of bill signings coincides with a stunning inability to do the basic job of governance, let alone tackle bigger and more divisive issues. The legislative branch’s most fundamental task is to authorize federal programs and appropriate money each year for the agencies to carry them out. This year, not only could lawmakers not get most of the spending bills through their own chambers, they couldn’t agree on a stopgap bill to keep the government open, leading to a costly 16-day shutdown.

The shutdown epitomized the dysfunctional relationship between House Republicans and Senate Democrats that has endured for three years. The House GOP has passed a long series of ideologically pure bills with little or no Democratic support, aiming to free businesses of federal regulation and shrink the scope of the federal government. Senate Democrats have responded by ignoring those measures completely – not even holding hearings on them – while they pursued their own liberal priorities. Point fingers where you may, but if the House Republican leadership really wanted to get something done instead of just scoring political points, it would have changed tactics long ago.

The budget agreement should make it easier for Congress to pass bills in January to keep the government open after its temporary funding expires, but there’s still a real possibility for lawmakers to foul things up. That, after all, is what happened in October, when House Republicans insisted on attaching a toxic rider – a provision to “defund Obamacare” – to what should have been a non-controversial stop-gap spending bill.

A modestly productive Congress would handle both of those fiscal tasks without drama, then make at least incremental progress on immigration, the sluggish economy, health care costs and other major issues. If last year is any guide, this Congress will do none of those things. And if that’s how its term concludes, it will be a most unproductive Congress regardless of how many other bills it passes.

Los Angeles Times

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